Issue 8 1996
Futura 2000 featured in the 8th issue of Graphotism and talks about Mo' Wax and James Lavelle. In the previous issue they teased the Futura interview and featured a photo of Futura at a Luscious Jackson gig.
Transcript by Dale Cooper.
Imparting the old school graf knowledge this issue, is another NYC legend Futura 2000. Credited for the world’s first abstract whole car on the New York subway, the first piece in the UK and even the first “graf rap” vinyl outing as early as 1981, Graphotism caught up with him over a series of visits to London and soaked up the vibe… Class is now in session…
What are you doing in London at the moment?
I’m here with James Lavelle of Mo’ Wax Records to do some work for them. It’s a new audience for me. I did some artwork for The Clash years ago but it wasn’t like this. This has been a conscious decision by James to use my work with his label. He bought a couple of my pieces, the DJ Krush thing and the DJ Shadow thing and now it’s really an ongoing project.
Futura’s escapade into rap
You talked about The Clash thing : you toured with them and ended up making a graf rap record too, is that correct?
Exactly. This was an exciting time as the movement had surfaced a bit with films like Wildstyle in production, and then I met these guys from England without initially knowing who they were. We did a banner – me, ZEPHYR, and maybe REVOLT and some others – a huge thing that said “The Clash” and we ended up giving it to the group. They liked it and asked me to come to London with them for a couple of weeks. Two weeks wound up being two months and that’s the first time I went to Europe.
They took me on tour to Paris, Vienna and some parts of England and I ended up making a record with them too (the graf vinyl classic “The Escapade of Futura 2000“). This was never intended to be a record. Initially, after understanding who The Clash were and being excited to be with them, I humbly asked if they could lay down a track that I could so bullshit rhyme on. What I really anted was that cassette so I could go back to Fab Five Freddy and some of my boys, and be like : “Check this out”, but ultimately it became a big thing and I performed that record live on stage on tour with them.
It was crazy and definitely that’s why I don’t really talk about it now – like I ever really wanted to rap! My thing was more like homage to the movement.
Futura on connections
The “Clash situation” also led to a big tour in France in ’82. I came over with the band and Afrika Bambaata, Ramellzee, DONDI, DST, Cold Crush, the Rock Steady Crew, FabFive Freddie and PHASE TWO, double dutch girls… it was a big troupe who went over, and they sent me a couple of days in advance because I’d been to Paris the year before with The Clash. I was probably the only person from New York that anyone in Paris might possibly of heard of from our scene, so I did a pro-interview and tried to soup it up. The radio station, Europe One who sponsored the tour had a young girl working there who wound up becoming my wife.
It’s cool that there have been such connections in my life, often very obscure and sometimes unbelievable. A lot of this shit that’s happened – although I’ve made some things happen – have been out of my control. They just seem to have happened, so for that I’m really happy ‘cos the thing with The Clash did sort of set that up.
Futura on London’s first piece
Going back to when you were in London in ’81. Some people have credited you with doing the first piece in London. Is that the case?
I don’t know if that’s true. When I came here that year, there wasn’t graf like I know it to exist. There was political graf and this kind of football stuff, but there were no pieces that I saw. That doesn’t mean that they weren’t there. But there was a wall near Westbourne Park (in West London), where the tube train would go by and I went out and crazily did a piece there. If in fact that was the first, it’s funny.
I remember coming back to London for one night for a show at The Wag club the following year and I went with DONDI, and I said “Yo check this thing out that I did” and I don’t think it had been dogged which suprised me. It sat up for a year and nobody went over it.
Futura on that train The abstract whole car in 1980, talk to us about that.
I went with DONDI when I did that train. He didn’t really paint that night as he was looking out for me. He brought me to Utica in Brooklyn, that was his yard. DURO might have been there as well, I forget. I think I wanted to completely take the letters out of it and just try to come off with some colours. I did that car and another one, a kind of greenish blue one but I got chased before it got finished. I never got photos. The first one was my first whole car. I’d never really done a top-to-bottom, end-to-end car before.
I didn’t want to do just a piece. I needed to try something different. I had no idea what it would look like, it was dark and I didn’t know what people would think of it, but I did know that it would be something different to what everyone else was doing therefore my association with that piece and whatever, would be: “Yeah he’s bombing but he’s doing some other kind of stuff”. The greatest thing was actually getting photographs of that car. I wasn’t very conscious of taking photos of trains or my work at that time, but SEEN got pictures and I was really happy that he did.
I had an opening in New York in January this year (’96) and SEEN came by. He always says to me: “It’s a good thing that I got pictures of that train for you isn’t it?” and I always says “Yeah you’re right, it’s a good thing!”.
How long did that train run for?
The windows got buffed and then it got crossed out or I think CAP might have done a piece over it! But it ran for a while. It certainly ran long enough so that people were like, “Oh shit”. They saw it, and you know how word travels, especially back then when someone has a piece on the “2s the 5s”. I wanted to do a series. To me I almost considered it like an abstract camouflage. That’s how I was looking at it in terms of what it looked like physically. I did this kind of crack in the middle and I wrote my name inside it. I had been told or I read that people thought that the train was called “Break” in homage to Kurtis Blow’s The Breaks, but that’s completely erroneous, it’s not true. I never liked Kurtis Blow.
So what was it about?
I called it “Break” because I felt it was a breakthrough. A break from the “norm”. Like I said, I tried to continue that idea in other colours. Ultimately I wanted to do 3 or 4 of them. I felt I could tie together a few different colour schemes and do the same thing rendered in a different shape. But I had bad luck on the second one, and never went back. It was a situation that never provided itself. Like I said DONDI brought me into Utica, and QUIK and IZ brought me somewhere else in Brooklyn. Guys like QUIK and DONDI bombed so heavily, that they had their own spots more or less. I didn’t necessarily have a spot, my spot was the one tunnel but I didn’t like that. The number “2s and the 5s” were the good trains to paint because they went through everywhere. They went to Brooklyn and the Bronx. Through the whole movement in the late ’70s, you could tell what trains were high visibility and the “2s and the 5s” were definitely that. That was ALI’s and Fab 5’s thing – they did hit the “5s”. It was the prestigious line going at the time. My idea was to reach as many people as I could. Not just local people, our own people. The public. I thought that that train could offer something to the public that’s a bit different. That’s all I think I was trying to do. Something different.
I accepted the fact that there were other guys out there who could do amazing things with letters and characters, so I tried to do something different – which up until that point, I hadn’t seen done before.
What was the opinion of the other writers to it?
I think at the time they were impressed by it, but I had still yet to begin to develop my technique as an artist. Up until that point I would write FUTURA, do FUTURA pieces. I don’t really know if the guys has much of a reaction to it. I think it may have been just too new for anyone to say anything.
After a couple of years, I would catch more respect like “Yo that train you did in ’80 man”. It’s weird because guys who didn’t want to step up to you at the time, even if they might like your shit, they didn’t want to disrespect themselves. In the end, I could see that guys dug it because at least I think they understood that I was doing my own thing. I thin they could appreciate that it was my own way of trying to do my own thing and in the long run, I’m very happy to see you got the photos because the little thing that was written on the back of the video tape (Visual Grafix) about how this work is documented because it won’t be around much longer, is really true and we didn’t really think about that aspect then. We all know that the life expectancy of a train, piece, could be one day, one week, could be one year. You just don’t know, but eventually it won’t be there any more. You do all that work and the next day the system decides that they won’t run it. They’re immediately going to take it to the buffer.
Right after that, the exhibition with CRASH and every one kicked in and we had the Fashion Moda Gallery show. That was the beginning of the gallery scene opening up and at this point heads were still doing both trains and canvases. Even as far as ’82 I was still sort of writing graffiti but I was also fortunate to be one of the guys that was having exhibition and getting other attention. But that piece set the stage for how my painting style would ultimately be an d I reflect back on it a lot. It also had some geometric shapes in it and I used masking tape to “box” them off. I also masked off the numbers of the train, and the actual MTA (Metropolitan Transit Authority) symbol. It looked official. The windows were painted, but the numbers were in effect and I know that TA (Transit Authority) were digging taht ‘cos one thing they didn’t like was number getting painted over. When that happened, they couldn’t keep a log of what train it was.
Has people used masking tape on trains before?
I don’t really think people did at that time. I don’t think that was even a concept. It was just something I had always done as a kid painting models, you know, be neat and mask off an area, use tape or whatever. It kind of looks like cheating in a way too, but I thought it would serve my purpose. It seemed like the most efficient way to get it done.
Where did the abstract elements you started adding come from?
Everybody has there own little “something”, whether it be little arrows or little hooks or “little do-dads” like SEEN says in the film Style Wars. When we were all in the subway, I used to peep out other guys’ style and stuff and I would have to give it to NOC, PHASE and TRACY 168. Those were the guys who, though it wasn’t even the main thing in their work, had subtle little things I picked up on in the background – the stuff that they didn’t consider to be a the forefront of their work, more like embellishment on to what they were doing. I like the embellishment. I felt like, “why not take the embellishment and make that the focal point?”. It was not so much like “Boom, I’m Futura”, but let’s just embellish these sort of light ideas. It was really the colour. Colours are really the primary thing that drives artists and I was really fascinated by that ‘cos trains are so grey and everybody’s rocking all these colourful things.
All of that we were sickly, crazy about – different shades of paint, all the different brands and all the different flavours. I was really into doing something really colourful. It hought that would be my positive contribution.
Futura on trains
Full on pieces are getting done in London at the moment but not running. When there is a situation like that what do you feel? Do you think it just needs more people to do it, or do you think we need to take a different approach? What’s your opinion on it not only in New York but in other cities as well?
If you got to the Bronx, and I’m not talking about the subway system, and go around some of these hoods, there is still mad graffiti everywhere. On the walls, whether it be legal or illegal, whatever. I still see a lot of fresh pieces arounf and I know guys are still doing it and the system isn’t there for them ‘cos it’s very hard to penetrate. I think the system will just not allow it.
It’s in their best interests now, no matter at what cost, not to let that stuff go out, because then it will give the impression that it’s open season again and they’ll be ready for the second or third coming of the movement. It’s tough because I would be so amped if a train came into my station and it was painted? It would almost be like a period film or something. I would think I was back in the day, like in some time-warp. I just don’t see it happening. I don’t see kids getting access to trains anymore and at the same time, the time that passes between what-was and what-is, there’s no intermediate areas to pass it down and sort of say, “This is how we’re going to it one night”.
I see a lot of walls being done. Like I said in The Bronx, it looks like things have never changed. It looks like 1980, pieces everywhere, WANE and REAS bomb and bomb and bomb. That really keeps the shit alive in the sort of area where people feel that this is where the shit all started. As for the trains I don’t think there are enough guys out there now that are part of the movement to keep it moving. There’s pockets of dudes, but the way things go full circle, it’s now like it’s really back to its roots. There are a lot of tagger out there. There is nothing else for them to do. They don’t even seem to me to have the desire to want to do whole cars or serious pieces or something like that. The majority of kids in New York are tagging, I see it a lot. I see a lot of window scratching on trains. It’s weird, I don’t even see tags on the insides, that’s how serious New York has got about it. They’ve got anti-graffiti walls on the interiors, and panels that they can quickly remove paint from or just wipe the shit off. To me that avenue, door way, is mad shut. There’s no way to get in anymore. They’ve boarded it up and if you get it up there’s a brick wall.
Futura on the future
So what do you think the alternative is?
It ain’t really the internet either. That’s something that’s there as a documentation of things, but it’s not the same as seeing something yourself in person or physically doing something. It will never be that?. My feelings about the ‘net have changed in the last six months. I was very saddened about it. I still see it as interesting thing but we’re a little too ahead of it. That’s something that’s going to seep down to the masses in the next two or three years. It’s not a mainstream thing, let’s put it that way. It’s not something heads up in The Bronx or Harlem or Manhattan or wherever they happen to live, will have. It’s got nothing to do with them and speaking for the masses of the kids, like I may have said in the past. I would suggest to them that there are alternatives.
I think there’s room even now in ’96 for your expression whatever that expression might be, and now there is more opportunity than ever. What do you want to do? Do you want to write graffiti, you want to go out and tag walls? OK you can do that if you feel like you need to express yourself that way. But now you don’t necessarily have to do that to get your work out. I think kids realise that they’ve got some talent and they really want to go out and write, they want to do something more than bomb, they want to really do some pieces somewhere, they should either continue to paint walls, and document their history through graffiti that way, or stop to some other way to express themselves. Whether it be through clothing, through a magazine or through something else where they wan use the energy that they are using to do that.
When we were young, living in my town there didn’t seem like there was much opportunity. There were no choices really but I think there are a lot of choices now. You just have to choose wisely that’s all, make the right choice.
It’s kind of funny bu I read PHASE’s piece in Graphotism 7 and I thought that a couple of things he said are so true. It seems that pages of your magazine, and things that are coming out now, are dealing more with content under lying on context: not just “work content” but more of the personal things about us, and it’s not stupid questions like “To, what’s your favourite colour? What’s your birth sign?” Not shit like that. Real shit and that’s what kids need because whether they know it or not, the problem is that we’re living in a mad new generation of TV and media where people don’t want to read any more. It’s a question of just researching your shit. I have written this thing, it’s called “Timeless”.
It talks about when I create my work, when I do what I do, I’m pretty conscious of the fact that that shit’s going out to the masses and I try to give as much quality control on it as possible. I don’t like to let any old bullshit run out there. I’m pretty conscious with my stuff and I’m hoping that in the future people will look at any work and think “This guy’s worth something. This guy’s work would rock now!”
Which would mean that if my work could survive into the future, the at the time that I did it, I must have been ahead of my time. But it’s not like me trying to be ahead of my time. I’m not trying to encapsulate my work. Like we were talking about the book, [a book on Futura is planned for a late ’97 release] it has that tombstone effect, like “Oh yea, that’s what he did, but he didn’t got anymore beyond, ‘dam, look at this”.
That shit really gets me nervous. The thing is you’ve just got to be able to make mistakes and experiment and by all means change up a couple of times. I’ve been very fortunate but as the same time I do constantly try to be serious about my shit, that’s all.
Futura on the NYC legacy
I think that us, as artists from this movement really got it going on. Think of Basquiat. OK he’s got mad respect. His paintings sell for $100.000. Alright, great, big deal. But who is he really inspiring? Answer : a lot of people with money, who made investments in his work. That other structure, that “Art World” which is completely on another planet from the kid in the street. The kid in the street doesn’t know about Basquiat. He doesn’t give a fuck about him. He’ll look at his shit and say “My daughter could o shit like that” or “That looks like my little brother’s shit”. OK now, they don’t quite understand, but the point I’m trying to make is, artists like myself, PHASE TWO, any of the guts like SEEN, TRACY 168, anybody. The amount of influence we have on people, young people is amazing.
Writers that are 12 years old now that weren’t even fucking born when we were writing. But whatever little bit they did hear was enough to get them going. To me that’s worth more than living large and having stupid money because if I’m living large and having stupid money that will happen anyway. I can’t control that either way so I’m really very very content with the effect that I have had on some people around the world. It also means that I’m in a position where I have to check myself and be aware that the shit I do has got to at least continue to keep people saying “Yeah” even though people will eclipse me.
That’s just the way it happens, artists will come along and they’ll be dope with shit and they’ll be more respected and they’ll be more successful, but as long as it’s in my power to continue what I’m doing in the face of this movement, I’m very proud, because I know that when I step to the various events and I see young kids painting, I think “wow”. That’s something that you cannot buy, and you can’t fake it with this movement either. You can’t bullshit people. That’s what I love about graffiti. You were either there and you did it or you weren’t and it’s very hard to fool the kids ‘cos they know. It’s like when I say they don’t know the history, but in a sense, not all of them are knuckleheads.
More of the young up and coming kids need to just check the books a little bit, do a bit of research. How are you going to come up with a fat homework assignment if they ask you to look at a book and you just look at the pictures. Get some dates in there, like PHASE says, the shit I love when people talk about “Back in the day” and they refer to ’80 or ’79. I hear “Back in the day”, like on WuTang’s record “Yeah, remember back in ’86/’87? That was the shit man ’87” That’s like a joke. PHASE is right, back in the day was fucking ’72? That to me, was back in the day.
Futura on history
Looking back 25 years from where I’ve come and what I remember being “the thing” I realise it has all changed. It never remains the way it ever was because progress can’t allow it.
Do you think it’s a shame?
In a sense it is, but I think you’ve got to get the best out of it. Look for the positive in it. What is a shame is that I remember when graffiti was really just so pure. Guys would just bomb because they fucking felt like it. There was a competitive thing but there was also a sense of respect. People like CAP weren’t out yet and there weren’t people who would figure “Fuck it. I’ve got no talent so I’ll just get famous by fucking up other people’s shit”.
What sort of time are you talking of? I heard PHASE TWO say the same thing and I’m like, “Maybe he’s getting all nostalgic about the good old days”. But I’m curious because more and more people are saying it and I’m interested in when it changed?
From 1974-78 I left and joined the military and during that time there was a lot that went on that I didn’t know about, but when I came back, it seemed like some where along the line some people has got pissed off ‘cos some kids could paint better than they could, and then it became more like a territorial thing; like “Yo this is my yard, you don’t come in there” or “This is my shit” you know.
But I think the time PHASE TWO is talking about is up until maybe ’74-75. There was a five year period where if there was any conflict it was always handled like “cool”. It was diplomatic almost, it didn’t have to come to blows, you know. It was like: “Are you down wit this crew?” “OK”. It was more like a discovery time for everyone.
Were there less people involved, do you think?
Yes. Several hundred as opposed to several thousand. So the numbers thing got bigger and of course what happened was more and more saturation until eventually it got out of hand.
Futura on making it
People shouldn’t be intimidated by other people’s success or their own failures or their own inabilities. It’s all down to self confidence that’s all it is. You’ve just got to believe in what you are doing and if you know what you’re doing is bullshit then I can’t help you, ‘cos you know inside yourself that you’re full of shit. But if you’re not and you just want to contribute to all that’s happening around you, there is room for you. You also have to be willing to work a little bit. I’ve been mad lucky but I’m not afraid to work. If I have to really bust my ass for a couple of days and run around New York and shlep all my supplies and carry huge canvases or whatever, I’ll do whatever i takes to get something done.
Maybe that’s why when the door swang open I saw a moment I could get in there. as long as I know I’m not lying to myself, (and there have been those times when I know I have been) but I realised that it wasn’t so severe so that it was going to ruin my integrity.
I think yesterday (the press at Camden in ’95) was a bit of a circus. I don’t think I have ever experienced something like that. And it’s kind of wild that in all my situations I’ve never had something quite so crazy happen to me as happened yesterday.
So it always personifies my belief that I never know what the fuck is really going to happen. And that’s another thing… seeing as how you never know, it could be interesting… it could be that mystery you have been waiting for…
Interview by Guy Bird / Archive photos courtesy of Steam